Monday, November 4, 2013
What is the Purpose of a Christian University?
I have searched the internet far and wide for the commencement speech given by Alvin Plantinga in August of 1996. In this speech, Plantinga begins to tackle questions concerning the purpose of a Christian University. But since I could not find a link in any of my searches, here it is, copied and pasted, for your reading enjoyment (and in connection with this talk, I also recommend Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's 1988 talk entitled A School in Zion):
BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY COMMENCEMENT - 15 August 1996
John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame
Honorary Doctoral Degree Recipient
President Monson, Elders, members of the board of trustees, President Bateman, parents, friends, faculty members, and especially graduates of 1996:
I’d like to say what a pleasure and honor it is to be with you here to take part in these exercises. I’ve been at BYU before. I count David Paulsen of the Philosophy Department as a friend, and at least two of our graduate students in philosophy at Notre Dame are from BYU — Angela Wentz and Dennis Potter. So it’s a pleasure to be here. But it’s a pleasure mixed with a little fear and trepidation. That’s because commencement addresses are not at all in my regular line of work. I am a professor of philosophy and do just about what you think professors of philosophy do — teach classes on philosophy and write papers and books on the subject. A commencement address, though, is a very different kettle of fish.
For one thing, there are a whole lot more people here than you’d find in any of my classes — my classes hardly ever have to be held in the Notre Dame stadium. More important, a commencement is a ceremonial occasion, not an occasion for instruction. Commencement speakers are supposed to remind the graduates of the great opportunities they have had and will have, to warn them of the great challenges that lie before them as they embark upon the stormy seas of postcollege life, and to encourage them to face these challenges bravely and wisely, remembering, of course, what they have learned in college. Now that we are so close to the year 2000, a commencement speaker should probably add that we must take stock, take the long view, see where we’ve been, and see where we are going. Sometimes these stocktakings and long views don’t go exactly right; President Eisenhower once said, no doubt in a commencement speech, that “things are more like they are now than they’ve ever been before.” And ex‑president Bush once said that “things aren’t nearly as bad as they would be if they weren’t as good as they are.” Well, at any rate, you can’t argue with that. You probably also think the main virtue of a proper commencement speech is brevity; as the commencement speaker at Notre Dame said this year, “Blessed is the commencement speaker who keepeth it short and delayeth not the party.”
Ceremonial events, in which we mark and celebrate significant occasions — occasions like this — are extremely important. Still, I want to do something just a bit different. There is something I want to say to you, something I want you to hear, something that means a great deal to me personally, and something I think is absolutely crucial to the health and welfare of the whole Christian community — Latter‑day Saints and Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox alike. This has to do with the very reason for having such universities as BYU and Noire Dame. Notre Dame and BYU are in certain important ways very much alike, and not merely because they both field impressive football teams. it is rather because both universities have a crucial religious role to play and a purpose that goes beyond this world. I want to say something about that purpose and role. Why should anyone want a Mormon university, or a Catholic or a Protestant university? Why have a BYU or a Notre Dame? Well, Notre Dame is of course a good place for Catholic young men to meet Catholic young women. It is also good to have opportunities for worship easily available on campus, to be able to take courses in religion and theology, and to have Christian counseling available for students who need it. But these benefits, important as they are, do not go to the heart of the matter. There is something more, and something deeper.
I begin by going back to one of the truly great Christian thinkers of all time, the church father St. Augustine, who lived some 1600 years ago, 400 or so after the birth of Christ. One of his works is entitled The City of God; it is a great long book — 900 pages or so — and in it Augustine makes a leisurely tour through all of human history up to his time. (Indeed, he goes back to a time before human history, the time when Satan and his minions revolted against the rule of God and were thrown out of heaven.) Augustine sees human life and human history as involving a sort of struggle, a contest, a battle between two implacably opposed forces. He speaks of the Heavenly City or City of God on the one hand and the Earthly City or City of the World on the other. The Heavenly City, he says, is dedicated to the service of God and to his will and to his glory; but the earthly city is dedicated to the service of self. These two cities stand deeply opposed to each other: they are locked in mortal combat.
I believe Augustine was right, and right for our time as well as for his. The intellectual and spiritual world now, as at Augustine’s time, is an arena for a contest; its like a football game, except that the stakes are vastly higher. It is really a battleground on which rages a battle for men’2 and women’s souls. This battle is a three‑way contest. There are at present three main spiritual responses to the world, or perspectives on the world, or pictures of the world — three fundamental ways of thinking about what the world we live in is really like, what we ourselves are like, and what we must do to live the good life. The first of these perspectives is Christianity; since you all know a good bit about that, I shall say little about it.
In addition to the Christian perspective there are, fundamentally, two others. The first is what I’ll call naturalism. To understand naturalism, think first of the Christian view of the world: there is God, the first being of the universe, who has created the world and all that it contains — the stars, the planets, mountains and seas, and all the living things including us human beings. We are created in the image of God; and the most important thing we can do is to get into the right relationship with him. To get the naturalistic perspective, you erase God from the picture and leave just the world. According to naturalism, there is no God; there is only nature. As Carl Sagan portentously intones, “The Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or will be.” We human beings are insignificant parts of a gigantic cosmic machine that pays no attention to us at all. It is wholly indifferent to our needs and desires, our hopes and aspirations, our ideas of right and wrong. And the way to understand what is most important and distinctive about us — our ability to love, to act, to think, to use language; our humor and playacting; our art, philosophy, literature, history, science, morality, and even religion — the right way to understand all this, says the naturalist, is not in terms of our being images of God — there is no God — but in terms of our similarity to nonhuman nature. We are best seen as parts of nature and are to be understood in terms of our place in the natural world.
The form this perspective takes in our own day is broadly evolutionary. You know the story: the idea is that we human beings have evolved from lower forms of life. First there was just the primeval ooze; then life somehow appeared. Once living things came to be, they were subject to chance genetic mutations. Some of these mutations were heritable and turned out to be useful in the struggle for existence; they came to predominate in the population. By way of this sort of change all the living creatures in the world came to be — including us. And what is important about us human beings — religion and love and art and science and so on — what is important and distinctive about us must be understood in terms of our evolutionary origin. Each of these features arose, a bit at a time, by chance; the bits that turned out to be useful in the struggle for existence were perpetuated by natural selection.
Consider evolutionary explanations of love, for example. Love is an enormously important part of human life: love between men and women, between parents and children; love for one’s family, one’s friends, one’s university; love of church and country; love in all its diverse manifestations and infinite variety. Now, what is most important about love, and how shall we understand it? From the point of view of evolutionary naturalism, love arose, ultimately and originally, by way of chance genetic mutation; it had survival value, and therefore it persisted. Male and female human beings, like male and female hippopotami, get together to have children (cubs? calves? colts?) and stay together to raise them; this has survival value. Once we see that point, we understand the bottom line about that sort of love and see its basic significance; and the same goes for these other varieties and manifestations of love. And that, fundamentally, is what there is to say about love. From the naturalistic perspective, furthermore, what goes for love goes for those other distinctively human traits: art, literature, music; play and humor; science, philosophy, mathematics; our tendency to take morality and religion very seriously. All these things are to be understood in terms of our community with nonhuman nature.
Naturalism is enormously influential at present: newspapers, magazines, Sunday supplements, television programs — all of these are regularly full of talk about understanding ourselves from a naturalistic point of view and in terms of our evolutionary origin — not our divine origin, but our naturalistic, evolutionary origin. Those who endorse this view often seem to think that the way to find out how we human beings should live is to see how the other animals manage things; this is the naturalistic equivalent of the biblical “Go to the ant, thou sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6). I recently heard a TV talk show in which a scientist was belittling traditional sexual ethics and mores — “heterosexual pair bonding,” he called it — on the grounds that only three percent of the other animals do things this way. He didn’t say anything about plants, but no doubt even more interesting conclusions could be drawn there.
I don’t need to tell you that these naturalistic accounts of what human beings are like are completely out of accord with Christian ways of thinking. For example, the way to understand love, obviously, is not in terms of our evolutionary origins but in terms of our relationship to God. As the apostle John says, “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). But naturalism assails us from all sides; it is extremely pervasive, and it is hard to escape its influence. Professor John Lucas of Oxford University declares that the orthodoxy of the academy threatens the intellectual wholeness and integrity of the Christian community and makes it hard for us to think about ourselves and our world in Christian ways.
I turn now to the second picture, the second rival to Christian ways of thinking; I’ll call it relativism. This picture begins with the startling idea that it is we ourselves — we human beings — who are somehow responsible for the basic structure of the world. This idea goes back to Protagoras, in the ancient world, with his claim that “man is the measure of all things.” The fundamental claim is that, contrary to what you might have thought, the world is the way it is because of what we human beings think and do. We apply categories or concepts to the world; and the world we live in is the way it is because of those categories and concepts. From a commonsense point of view, this is hard to take seriously: does the sun shine, for example, because of something we human beings do? If we stopped doing that thing, whatever it is, would the sun stop shining? That’s pretty hard to believe, and I don’t have the time to go into it enough to make it plausible. Not only is it hard to believe, it is also presumptuous in that it really puts us human beings in the place of God. In this way of thinking, it isn’t God, fundamentally, who is responsible for the way the world is; it is we people. This view seems implausible at first sight; nevertheless, it is extremely widespread at present, particularly in colleges and universities, and especially in the arts and humanities as opposed to the sciences.
In this second view, therefore, it is we human beings who somehow are responsible for the way the world is. This is brought out nicely by a story told about the famous big‑league umpire, Bill Clem. At a testimonial dinner, a speaker rose to praise Clem by saying, “He always calls them the way lie sees them.” Another speaker rose to disagree: “He calls them the way they are.” Whereupon Clem himself got up and said, “You’re both wrong. Until I call ‘em, they ain’t nothin’.” This is the basic idea here: things in the world ain’t nothin’ until we human beings create or structure them. But there is a further step to reach full‑blown relativism. Suppose you think our world is somehow created or structured, made the way it is, by us human beings arid our ways of thinking. You may then note that human beings apparently do not all construct the same worlds. The world you
live in may be somewhat different from my world; and the world of Billy Graham is certainly very different from that of Carl Sagan or Hugh Hefner. Which one of these worlds, then, is the world as it really is?
Here it is an easy but fateful step to relativism as such: the thought that there simply isn’t any such thing as the way the world really is. There is the way it looks to me, the way it looks to you, the way it looks to Billy Graham, and the way it looks to Hugh Hefner: but there is no way that it is just itself. There are only these different versions; there is no way the world is that is the same for all of us, whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not. There is no such thing as truth, objective truth, the same for everybody, no matter what we know or believe. Instead, there is my version of reality, the way things are relative to me, and your version, the way things are relative to you, and many other versions; and what is true in one version need not be true in another. So there isn’t any such thing as just plain truth; there is only truth relative to you, and to me, and to Carl Sagan, and so on. As Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in effect says, “Man is the measure of all things; I am a man; therefore I am the measure of all things” (see Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus ). There is no such thing as the way the world is; there are only these different versions, and any one of them is as good as any other.
Relativism is extremely influential and seems to have seeped down into high school and junior high. When I began teaching, I noticed something I found very puzzling. When I would give reasons for or against a certain belief or claim, my students would sometimes say: “Well maybe that’s true for you, but it isn’t true for me. “I always used to think this was a peculiarly sophomoric confusion (excuse me, sophomores), but in fact it is much deeper than that. It is an expression of this relativistic way of thinking: there isn’t anything that is just plain true; there are only things that are true for you or me or Sam, and what is true for Sam needn’t be true for us. The whole idea of an objective truth, the same for all of us, in this view, is an illusion, or a bourgeois plot, or a silly mistake.
Like naturalism, relativism is obviously and deeply inconsistent with Christian ways of thinking. For, of course, the basic Christian claim is that things really are a certain way. We human beings really have sinned, really do need salvation; and Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself, really did die on the cross, making it possible for us to have life. These things, according to Christianity, are just plain true; they are not merely true for me and you but may be false for Carl Sagan or somebody else. It makes no difference what you and I, or Carl Sagan, or whoever thinks. We can categorize and carry on as much as we like; these things remain true and do not depend upon us for their truth. Perhaps this relativism is even more pernicious than naturalism, for it undercuts and does away with the very idea of truth. According to the Bible, Satan is the father of lies; and there is no bigger lie than the lie that there is no truth.
I could give a hundred more examples if I had the time and you had the patience; but neither of us has either, so I’ll go on to my conclusion. For this brings me back finally to the point where I began: What is a real Christian university like, and what should it aim at? It is many things, no doubt; but one of the very most important of its tasks is that of developing, promoting, and extending a Christian view of the world — a Christian view of the world God has created for us and a Christian view of ourselves. And this means that the Christian community must be intensely serious about Christian scholarship.
It must be intensely serious about at least two kinds of Christian scholarship. First, what is needed is Christian cultural criticism, consciousness raising — testing the spirits, as we may call it. We must see that the spiritual and intellectual culture of our day is deeply involved in this contest for basic human allegiance. We must really understand that there is a battle here, and we must know who and what the main contestants are and how this contest pervades the university and the rest of modern culture. These perspectives are seductive; they are widespread; they are the majority views in the universities and in modern culture generally. Modern intellectual and spiritual culture is secular culture; as Stephen Carter puts it, modern intellectual life is dominated by the “culture of disbelief.” Fifty years ago William F. Buckley wrote a book entitled God and Man at Yale; in it he argued that unbelief and atheism were widespread at Yale. The Yale authorities tried to defend themselves by claiming that Buckley exaggerated. Nowadays, by contrast, one way to run Yale down among academics would be to claim that there are many Christians there. We live in a world dominated by naturalism and relativism: we imbibe them with our mother’s milk; and it is easy to embrace them and their projects in a sort of unthoughtful, unselfconscious way, just because they do dominate our intellectual culture. But these perspectives are also deeply opposed to Christianity; these ways of thinking distort our views of ourselves and of the world. To the degree that we are not aware of them and do not understand their allegiances, they make for confusion and for lack of intellectual and spiritual wholeness and integrity among us Christians. Christians of all sorts — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Latter‑day Saints — all must be aware of these matters. We Christians are all in this thing together.
And of course all of us Christians are in this thing together; it isn’t a problem just for academics and intellectuals. I realize that not everyone here is or intends to become an academic, and I also realize that I probably sound very much like an academic myself. Well, I can’t help it; that’s what I am, and I may as well confess it right up front. But, of course, the problem here isn’t one just for academics; we are all subject to the blandishments of contemporary culture, and we must all be aware of the spiritual roots of the culture with which we are surrounded and bombarded.
So one thing the whole Christian community needs is this testing of the spirits. But the Christian university is where the Christian community does its most sustained thinking; it is in Christian universities that this testing of the spirits can be done in the deepest and most systematic way. One extremely important job of the Christian university, therefore, is to examine contemporary intellectual culture and contemporary intellectual projects, to discern their roots, and to see what perspective these projects embody and arise from and how they fit with a Christian view of the world; and Christian academics must then make their findings known to the rest of us.
This is hard enough. But there is something even more difficult: a Christian university must work at the various areas of science and scholarship in a way that is right from a Christian perspective. We must not assume automatically that Christians can sensibly work at the various disciplines in just the same way as the rest of the academic world. There are all these different areas of scholarship: philosophy, history, psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, biology. In working at these areas, shouldn’t we take for granted Christian answers to the great questions about God, ourselves, and creation and then go on from there to address the narrower questions of the various disciplines? Must Christian psychologists or economists or philosophers ply their trade in the very same way as it’s done in centers of secular scholarship? Certainly not. A Christian university ought to address these questions from a Christian point of view.
So we need Christian scholarship, and that is one basic and important reason why we need Christian universities. My own university, the University of Notre Dame, has a long way to go along these lines; perhaps the same is true of BYU. This task of building Christian scholarship and Christian culture, I believe, is laid upon us by the Lord himself. We must thank him for what has already been accomplished, but we must work hard to do better. And again, we Christians are all in this together, academics and nonacademics alike. The Christian academic’s most important assignment is really that of serving the Christian community; but then the whole Christian community must endorse, support, pray for, and pay for this crucial job of the Christian university. So in conclusion, I say to you graduates and to everybody else as well: seriously endorse this undertaking. Give thanks to the Lord for what this university has been and is; support it in accomplishing this task of Christian scholarship; insist that it carry out the task with zeal, patience, discernment, and deep Christian commitment. Mormon’s are known the world over for industry, thrift, sobriety, godliness, plain living, and high thinking, Is it too much to hope that this great Mormon university will be similarly known for courageous and deep and powerful Christian scholarship? That is my hope and prayer for BYU. Thank you.